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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Bells (Kolokola), Op.35 (1913)* [35:29]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) [35:51]
*Luba Orgonášová (soprano); Dmitro Popov (tenor); *Mikhail Petrenko (bass)
*Rundfunkchor Berlin; Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 4-5 November 2010; *8-11 November 2012, Philharmonie, Berlin. DDD
Russian texts (transliterated) and English translations included
WARNER CLASSICS 9845192 [71:39]

Sir Simon Rattle has been an exclusive EMI recording artist for as long as I can remember. If memory serves me right he first signed with EMI around the time he began his long association with the CBSO in 1980 and ever since he’s been one of the jewels in the EMI crown. Following the recent deal by which Warner Classics acquired EMI here we have Rattle’s first recording with no sign of Nipper on the packaging.
Rachmaninov’s music has not been exactly central to Rattle’s repertoire over the years though he has conducted some works. A long time ago he made a recording for EMI of the Second Symphony, which I never heard. That was with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time that he was their principal guest conductor. From memory the critics found it disappointing and as far as I can see it’s not currently available. There’s a 2011 live performance of the same symphony on DVD which Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded live in Madrid. I haven’t seen that but William Hedley described the reading as “very successful overall, with a natural feel for the music’s pulse” (review). On the evidence of this present disc a Berlin audio recording would be an interesting proposition. Also on DVD is a recording of the Symphonic Dances taken from performances given by Rattle and the Berliners in Singapore some three weeks after the Berlin performances that are preserved on this CD. The DVD received an overall welcome from Leslie Wright (review). So far as I’m aware The Bells is a work that Rattle has taken up fairly recently.
So far as I know this coupling is unique on CD but it’s good to have these two great works available together. Rattle’s account of The Bells is very impressive: he has three excellent soloists and the choral and orchestral contributions are first class. The Rundfunkchor Berlin, superbly trained by Simon Halsey, announce themselves in tremendous fashion with a really punchy initial entry in the first movement. The choir contributes really well to all four movements but they are at their peak - as they need to be - in the third movement. Here Rattle makes the most of the many dynamic contrasts in both the orchestral and choral parts and gets a vivid, virtuoso performance from his Berlin forces. There’s often great energy in the music-making and this seems to me to be an outstanding, thrilling account of the movement. All three soloists acquit themselves extremely well. The Ukrainian tenor, Dmitro Popov, is excellent, singing with that authentic Slavic timbre and playing the leading role in a fresh, incisive account of the first movement. The Slovakian soprano Luba Orgonášová brings a big, operatic tone to the second movement, yet she can be sensitive as well as passionate. The Russian bass, Mikhail Petrenko, is the real deal in the last movement. His is a commanding, baleful vocal presence, just right for this music. I was gripped by the powerful performance of this movement. In addition to a very fine soloist the orchestral response, beginning with a dolefully expressive cor anglais solo, is very fine indeed and once again the choral sound is splendid. After all the emotion of this movement Rattle brings the work home with a gentle radiance in the short orchestral coda: here the music glows. I’m not about to part with Svetlanov’s viscerally exciting performance of The Bells (review) but this Rattle account is also one to which I’m sure I shall often return.
I’m equally taken with his reading of the Symphonic Dances. I’m a great admirer of Vasily Petrenko’s classy recording of this work, still one of the best things he’s done on Merseyside (review). I wouldn’t wish to make a choice between Petrenko and Rattle: both are excellent. The Avie sound for Petrenko is a bit more immediate and exciting than the very good results that Rattle’s engineers achieve - the Avie recording was made under studio conditions. In terms of the playing, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic play out of their collective skins for Petrenko but the Berlin playing is simply fabulous and there’s a richness and depth to their tone that the excellent Liverpudlians can’t quite match. To be truthful, I’m delighted to have both versions in my collection.
At the start of the first dance Rattle achieves good weight in the orchestral sound without the music ever sounding heavy. In the lovely wistful slower music the solo saxophone is smooth and silky, with lovely woodwind tracery around the saxophone’s melody. When the strings take up the tune the sound is simply gorgeous. In the nostalgic coda (from 10:29) some may feel that the Berlin string sound is just a bit too gorgeous: I love it.
In the second dance Rattle offers a master-class in rubato. One almost has the impression that the tempo is never the same in two successive bars as he indulges in give-and-take and little nudges and hesitations. I can well imagine that some may think this is an example of Rattle’s alleged micro-management. I can only say that it all seems highly imaginative to me: for much of the time the result sounds like music to accompany a shadowy ballroom scene. It helps that the orchestral playing is absolutely superb with Rattle’s every demand for light and shade realised. Towards the end, when the pace of the music picks up appreciably, the playing has a quicksilver lightness to it and the last bars just seem to vanish into thin air.
The opening pages of the third dance are dexterous and vivacious in this performance. The playing is tremendously incisive - the percussion are especially so - and the music is driven along excitingly. The extended slower section (3:26 - 9:54) is thereby thrown into sharp relief. In this passage the playing is wonderfully rich of tone and the smouldering passion is conveyed marvellously. When the tempo picks up again the music, now complete with references to the Dies Irae, becomes more and more exciting; once again the quality of the playing is amazing. Rattle brings the piece to a thrilling conclusion, letting the gong reverberate into silence.
I’m no more inclined to give up Petrenko’s splendid account of this marvellous work than I am to dispense with the Svetlanov account of The Bells. However, just as those two Russian conductors offer a special experience in their respective performances so too Rattle offers a memorable account of each work. It’s especially pleasing to have this fine new account of The Bells one hundred years since the work was written. These are two of Rachmaninov’s greatest works and Simon Rattle has done them proud with this exciting disc.
As I write there’s a good deal of speculation that when he leaves Berlin Rattle will succeed Valery Gergiev as principal conductor of the LSO. At the moment it’s just speculation but were it to come to pass the combination of Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO could be a very exciting one. Fingers crossed.
John Quinn